HONOLULU - High blood pressure, or hypertension, is a big problem, affecting a quarter of Americans. It's an even bigger problem for Native Hawaiians. That's why University of Hawaii medical school researchers are excited about a new study that found dancing hula helped people's hearts. 

These seniors are dancing their way to healthier hearts. They're part of a UH John A. Burns School of Medicine study to see if dancing hula regularly lowers high blood pressure for Native Hawaiians.

Dr. Keawe'aimoku Kaholokula, a professor and chair of JABSOM's Department of Native Hawaiian Health, is a co-author of the study, along with Mele Look, Tricia Mabellos, Guangxiang Zhang, Mapuana de Silva, Sheryl Yoshimura, Cappy Solatorio, Thomas Wills, Todd B. Seto, and Ka'imi Sinclair. "High blood pressure is really high in our Native Hawaiian population; about 50% of the population. What's terrible is, it is the highest risk factor for heart disease and stroke," he says.

Researchers tested if people would exercise more if it was culturally meaningful, so they picked the traditional Hawaiian dance. Dr. Kaholokula explains, "It has physical activity that can be adjusted for different ages, so it's good for kupuna [seniors]. It has a social component of people interacting with each other. It has a spiritual, cultural component."

Their initial results found, it worked. Participants started with a systolic blood pressure of 148 on average. Doctors say on average, dancers' blood pressure dropped to about 130. Although normal is considered anything under 120, a drop of at least 5 mmHg in systolic blood pressure can lower a person’s risk of heart disease by 21% and stroke by 34%.

Researchers say this is the first study in the world to measure the effects of hula on health. This is called the Ola Hou i ka Hula program and the initial study was conducted by Kokua Kalihi Valley Family Comprehensive Services and Kula no na Po'e Hawai'i in Papakolea in partnership with the Department of Native Hawaiian Health. These JABSOM and community researchers are currently finishing up a larger scale study across Hawaii to show the long term benefits of hula on improving heart health with even more community partners.

Sixty-seven-year-old U`ilani Lee, a Hawaiian studies teacher at Soto Academy, participated in the study. "We sweat puddles! Well, I did. Wring -out-your-shirt kind of thing when you are pau [done]," she recalls of her course.

Lee, who sometimes needs to sit because she has arthritic hips, lowered her blood pressure, lost weight, and found herself. "In hula, you will find you have rhythm, pulse, grace, and your inner beauty will come out," she says. 

Turns out dancing from the heart is also good for your heart.

JABSOM is not taking any more hula study recruits. The study officially finishes in early 2020 and will be published that year. They're so encouraged by the results, Dr. Kaholokula says they will next study the effects of hula on dementia.